The Sessions is rivetingly human
Starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. Rated 18A. Opens Friday, November 2, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas
Movies about people with disabilities tend to sugarcoat painful realities. But one stellar exception was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel's erotically surreal depiction of a former rogue's attempts to keep on keepin' on after the onset of sudden paralysis.
The Sessions offers more straightforward treatment of similar material and constitutes a beautiful addition to an uncrowded genre. Here, the versatile John Hawkes is real-life poet Mark O'Brien. Due to a childhood bout with polio, O'Brien mostly lived in an iron lung, but this didn't stop him from attending UC Berkeley and typing his poems and magazine articles with a mouth-operated stick.
What he wasn't able to do was get laid. As documented in Jessica Yu's Oscar-winning Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, O'Brien was less than five feet tall and greatly misshapen, while Hawkes is not. But he captures the writer's mordant humour and reedy, airless voice, his principal tools in pushing beyond physical limitations. Although further crippled by Catholic guilt—with the church represented, humorously, by William H. Macy's beer-drinking priest—O'Brien wasn't completely dead down there—a virtue he finally exploited via an enlightened sex surrogate, played by the infinitely patient and frequently naked Helen Hunt.
Hunt has been down this road before, most pertinently in The Waterdance, attending to the paralyzed Eric Stoltz, and in As Good As It Gets, coping with the even gnarlier Jack Nicholson. She lays on the Massachusetts working-class shtick a bit thick, but her dynamic with Hawkes is rivetingly human. (Adam Arkin has some good scenes as her increasingly jealous husband.) By the way, 66-year-old writer-director Ben Lewin, born in Poland and raised in Australia (where he made Georgia and The Dunera Boys), also had childhood polio. And he grew up to be his own kind of sexy poet.
Watch the trailer for The Sessions.